Hale Youngblood was out of his element. The architecture graduate from the University of Texas was pounding the pavement of Sun City, an immaculate master-planned community on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, trying to sell an over-priced children’s book with mediocre Amazon reviews.
But the housewives weren’t buying. Maybe because Youngblood, who’s 6 feet tall, was accompanied by two male classmates, one from Georgia (the country) and another of Middle Eastern descent. “We were three intimidating guys trying to sell children’s products to stay-at-home moms,” he recalls of his visit to Sun City and nearby Onion Creek. Of course it didn’t help that buyers had to trust the book would arrive in the mail two weeks later.
Youngblood did not sell a single book. But pushing through rejection was the whole point. It was one of many such assignments he would encounter at the Acton School of Business, a novel MBA program in Austin, Texas, launched in 2002 by Jeff Sandefer, an oilman turned educator.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE MBA
Acton is unique even at a time when the MBA landscape is churning out new models and programs like never before. For one, it’s run like a business — professors are entrepreneurs rather than Ph.D.s. Their pay is tied to student ratings, and those with poor ratings are not invited back the following year. For another, the school is 100% focused on entrepreneurship. The typical MBA mainstay paths of finance, consulting, and management are absent. The school attracts a highly specific type of student. In fact, 90% of their students apply only to Acton, according to Robin Bruce, the school’s CEO (Acton’s equivalent of a dean). “It’s not like comparing apples to apples. The value proposition is so dramatically different,” Bruce says.
The campus, just off Austin’s main artery, I-35, is a redbrick building, reminiscent of a 2000-era office building. With no ivy-covered walls or stately libraries and latte bars, you’d be hard-pressed to know that it’s a business school.
That is, in part, by design. The 10-month program strips away the extras to churn out entrepreneurs with finely tuned business reflexes for a total tuition price tag of $49,500. Of course this condensed and economical MBA comes at cost: there are no career services, deep alumni networks, or summer internships. But for Acton’s biggest promoters, these subsidiary services are an extra cost and distraction from their objective: acquiring as much knowledge as possible in as little time as possible to build and run a sustainable business.
FROM OILMAN TO EDUCATOR
To understand Acton, it’s essential to understand Sandefer. After his company, Sandefer Offshore Co., turned $500 million in profit from a series of shrewd oil investments, he began looking for something more. He started teaching at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, where he was, by all accounts, an exceptional instructor. He won Outstanding Teacher five times, thanks no doubt to his roll-up-your sleeves style, which focused on case studies and real-world scenarios. He brought other similar-minded adjuncts on board to help teach McCombs’ entrepreneurship program and started rattling for change. This didn’t sit well with tenured faculty and resulted in a fissure between Sandefer and the administration.
Sandefer ultimately cut ties with the university in 2002. The same year he and several other professors began offering a no-credit, off-campus course for students from any university. “I though 10 people would show up, but 120 people came,” Sandefer recalls. “We had this following we didn’t know we had.” He expected students from McCombs but was surprised when others — from Baylor University in Waco and Rice University in Houston — drove more than 100 miles to attend.
Sandefer, along with fellow former McCombs professors Jack Long and Steve Tomlinson, parlayed that following into the Acton MBA.
THE ACTON MBA
Sandefer and his co-founders envisioned a program where students developed the intrinsic frameworks required to make smart business decisions on the fly. Practitioners would teach the material, and — taking a page from his own MBA experience at Harvard Business School — case studies and the Socratic method would reign supreme as the method of instruction.
Sandefer’s thinking was that if students were exposed to real-world business dilemmas over and over, they would eventually acquire a reflexive habit of asking the questions in the right pattern to make better decisions. “The goal is to be right more than half the time,” he explains. The program would offer a lock-step curriculum with no elective options. But he couldn’t eschew convention completely. So he sought accreditation from Hardin-Simmons, a private Baptist university in Texas. It’s worth noting that Sander’s great-grandfather, Jefferson Davis Sandefer, was a former president of Hardin-Simmons. And with that, the Acton MBA was in business.